A serious mental illness is a disease that causes moderate to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. Most people believe that mental disorders are rare and “happen to someone else”. In fact, mental disorders are common and an estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder.
Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. Mental illnesses cannot be overcome through “will power” and are not related to a person’s character or intelligence. With appropriate care and treatment, which typically includes both medications and behavioral interventions, between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reductions of symptoms and improved quality of life. Early identification and treatment is vitally important.
The mental illness of one member affects the entire family. Most families are not prepared to cope with the physical and emotional demands a diagnosis of serious mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or borderline personality disorder brings. Constant stress and difficulty can create profound family problems.
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding mental illness. When someone you love is diagnosed with a serious mental illness, you may experience feelings of denial, shock, sadness, anger, guilt, resentment or even shame. You may worry about what other people will think because of the negative associations to mental illness in our society. It is helpful to accept your feelings as normal and common among families going through similar situations.
One of the greatest difficulties for families in accepting any life altering illness of a loved one is dealing with a changed future and expectations. Families grieve for what might have been and for their loved one. The loss of the person we knew is deeply felt.
Some basic suggestions for family members of a seriously mentally ill person:
• Accept the illness and its difficult consequences – denial or pretending “this is not really serious” or “this will pass” delays finding needed help
• Learn about your loved one’s illness by reading and talking with mental health professionals
• Develop realistic expectations for the ill person and yourself
• Recognize that it may take time to find the proper medications that work
• Accept all the help and support you can get
• Keep a sense of humor
• Join a support group
• Take physical and emotional care of yourself
• Stay optimistic
Family acceptance of mental illness includes an understanding that it’s nobody’s fault and that while the illness is a sad and difficult life experience, it can be survived. There are resources to help. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is a non-profit organization that provides education, support and advocacy for those with mental illness and their family members. NAMI sponsors a free 12-week course for family caregiver of individuals with severe mental illness that discusses the clinical treatment of illnesses and teaches the knowledge and skills that family members need to cope more effectively. To obtain information on this or other services offered by NAMI go to www.nami.org.